Homeland Security:

Challenges Facing the Department of Homeland Security in Balancing its Border Security and Trade Facilitation Missions

GAO-03-902T: Published: Jun 16, 2003. Publicly Released: Jun 16, 2003.

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Richard M. Stana
(202) 512-8816


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

Balancing our nation's security and commercial needs is a longstanding issue that is especially important in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that changed the nation's security environment. Addressing this challenge now falls principally to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its Border and Transportation Security directorate. Within this directorate, responsibility has been assigned primarily to the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BCBP). BCBP consists of the inspections component of the former U.S. Customs Service; the Border Patrol and Inspections component of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, and a former component of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Achieving the balance between security and commercial needs is greatly affected by BCBP's commercial and border and immigration control workload. Regarding commercial workload, in fiscal year 2002, the former U.S. Customs Services processed 24.9 million trade import entries valued at over $1.1 trillion and collected $23.8 billion in duties and fees; it also processed about 6 million cargo containers arriving at U.S. sea ports. While the cargo workload has stabilized somewhat as a result of the recent global economic slowdown, it is likely to begin growing again, when an economic recovery is underway at some point in the future, thus exacerbating the challenges BCBP faces. Regarding border and immigration control workload, in fiscal year 2002, inspectors at over 300 ports of entry inspected nearly 450 million travelers while the Border Patrol apprehended nearly 960,000 aliens trying to enter the U.S. illegally between the ports of entry.

With respect to cargo, BCBP has attempted to select and inspect the highest-risk incoming cargo, while enabling legitimate cargo to be cleared in a timely manner. These efforts pose a range of challenges, from the availability of threat assessments and actionable intelligence to the capability of nonintrusive inspection technology to detect potentially harmful contraband. BCBP has made some progress in implementing initiatives that are designed to improve the efficiency of its regulation of legitimate commercial activities. But, additional challenges remain, including the need to improve its trade compliance program and to successfully implement its new trade processing information system. BCBP also faces many challenges with respect of preventing illegal entry by individuals into the United States. These challenges impact BCBP's ability to detect and deter illegal entry between ports of entry and to identify those individuals who should not be permitted entry at the ports. BCBP is faced with continuing to implement its southwest border strategy while simultaneously addressing emerging concerns over illegal entry along the northern border, mitigating the negatives affects the strategy may have on communities, and responding to continuing concern over the safety of aliens who cross in remote and desolate areas. At our nation's borders, the challenges include detecting false admissibility documents, unifying and enhancing inspector training, and providing timely intelligence to the field, and successfully implementing the new entry-exit system. In our recent Performance and Accountability series report, we designed implementation and transformation of DHS as high risk based on three factors. First, the implementation and transformation of DHS is an enormous undertaking that will take time to achieve in an effective and efficient manner. Second, components to be merged into DHS, including those forming BCBP, already face a wide array of existing challenges, some of which are described in this statement. Finally, failure to effectively carry out its mission would expose the nation to potentially very serious consequences.

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